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UNR's Sigma Nu Fraternity Sued for Wrongful Death of Freshman Pledge

The Sigma Nu fraternity on University of Nevada Reno's campus has been sued due to an alleged hazing death that occurred last year. Along with the fraternity organization itself, the housing organizer and several fraternity members have been named in the lawsuit filed by the deceased's parents.

The parents of Ryan Abele filed the wrongful death suit alleging their son was forced to drink excessively, then suffered a life-ending fall down a flight of stairs at the fraternity house the following morning. His death allegedly occurred as a result of hazing incidents that required him to drink excessively and clean the fraternity house after a party.

Fraternal Hazing

Ryan Abele was attempting to join the Sigma Nu fraternity. As part of the process, he was required to "pledge" the fraternity. This generally involves learning about the organizations history, principles, and members, then agreeing to uphold the same principles. Not surprisingly, Ryan was presented with paperwork that specifically stated the fraternity did not haze members, nor requires or encourages the use or misuse of alcohol.

However, it is no secret that fraternities and sororities routinely require their pledges to do more than just learn and commit, regardless of university or Greek-life rules against hazing. Frequently, pledges are required to do menial tasks or manual labor, suffer embarrassment, humiliation, and injury, and are frequently required to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. All of these sorts of activities are usually considered hazing. Occasionally, pledge activities will be considered legitimate team building, but if there is any question, it likely will qualify as hazing.

Facts of the Case

In Ryan's case, he did not suffer his fatal injury until the morning after he was instructed to drink excessively. However, after falling down the flight of stairs the morning after being forced to drink, when he arrived at the hospital, he had a BAC of 0.3%. At 0.08% BAC a person is considered legally drunk in most states.

It is alleged that Ryan was instructed to drink a full third of a 750ml bottle of 100 proof Captain Morgan rum the night before he died. When he was awoken early in the morning to clean the basement, it is alleged that he was still intoxicated. When another member of the fraternity yelled at him to get started while he was standing at the top of the stairs, he fell down the stairs and hit his head against a concrete wall at the bottom.

As a result of the incident, the fraternity was suspended from UNR for 15 years (just the organization, not the students), and the national Sigma Nu organization closed down the university's chapter. There has been no news as to whether criminal charges will be filed against those involved.

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